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The COVID-19 Crisis Threatens Democracy: An IDEA to Defend it

The coronavirus has exposed strengths and weaknesses nationally and globally. The UN will be crucial to ensure the effectiveness of aid initiatives

States and citizens should address the flaws the virus has brought glaringly to the surface and rebuild the social contract. Priorities of the post-COVID-19 recovery include reducing of inequalities, fighting authoritarian temptations and building democratic institutions that deliver sustainable development for our common future.

In Italiano

On June 25 International IDEA, together with over 70 international organizations, launched an open letter A Call to Defend Democracy which has been signed by almost 500 eminent personalities, including 13 Nobel laureates and 62 former Heads of State and Government, from a total of 119 countries. The statement has been developed by International IDEA with a coalition of over 20 international organizations working to support democracy globally and affirms the importance of democratic values in the face of the pandemic crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens more than the lives and the livelihoods of people throughout the world. It is also a political crisis that threatens the future of democracy. Not only are authoritarian regimes using the crisis to silence critics and tighten their political grip on power, but even some democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers that restrict human rights. Democracy is being threatened in many other ways as well, as journalists in many countries are being arrested, minorities are being scapegoated, and civil society organizations are being harassed. It is important that all of us that care about democracy speak up.

On June 26 the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Charter provided an opportunity to reflect on the relevance of the United Nations in the face of the most serious global crisis and recession since the end of the Second World War. The role of the UN system will be crucial for supporting the efforts of Member States in responding to the pandemic crisis, and for creating an enabling environment that would ensure the effectiveness of aid initiatives in support of beneficiary countries in need of major international support. Such support should not be technocratic in nature but should rather be based on a full awareness of the politics of policies for recovery. Mainstreaming a democratic governance perspective in the definition of response programs and more generally of post-COVID-19 recovery processes, should constitute a key message for whole-of-government responses to the short, medium and long-term impacts of the crisis.

COVID-19 has exposed strengths and weaknesses nationally and globally, ranging from healthcare and other basic service infrastructures, state capacity and crisis management, to information integrity. Everywhere, the virus has demonstrated the importance of transparent, competent, and effective governance as well as public trust in the state.

This does present an opportunity to address the flaws the virus has brought glaringly to the surface. Clearly there is a need to revisit election legislation (and relevant constitutional provisions) to set clear procedures in the case of a crisis as well as to upgrade election management and explore innovation (mail in, online). Countries may require expertise in this regard. The crisis also exposed deep inequalities in society, weakness or even lack of social safety nets and unemployment protections for majorities of the workforce, absence of universal healthcare coverage, making some much more vulnerable than others in a crisis.

The Art of Life – The UN Path, by Marlene Luce Tremblay.
United Nations Headquarters (from photo dating back to 1952)

It is an opportunity to rebuild the social contract between states and citizens, ensuring that democracies deliver.  This could include technical assistance to support greater public participation in policy deliberations and setting budget priorities; methods for bolstering institutions’ agility to respond to economic development (public accounts committees, parliamentary budget offices); mechanisms to anchor civic advocacy campaigns around budget cycles to provide citizen input on formulation and oversight; openness governance principles requiring inclusive participatory practices in setting priorities; and party renewal and economic issue engagement.

As for other global crises, the impact of the COVID-19 is shaped by, and reinforces, inequalities in societies. First and foremost, gender inequality, as shown for example, by the worrying trends in violence against women at the time when protection and coping mechanisms have been significantly undermined by the emergency provisions adopted for containing the virus. The crisis, and governments responses, have hit harder people with jobs in the informal sector, the most vulnerable communities, and those who are excluded and systematically marginalized. The pandemic has magnified the structural inequalities that have steadily grown on a global basis over the last 25 years, stalling progress on inclusion and increasing inequality of wealth and assets, not only of income.

Looking at the crisis through the lens of democratic governance and gender may help address some of the structural problems that, because of their impact on the agency of different actors in the society, affect at times of crisis their coping strategies and resilience. Also, the crisis reveals an important opportunity to strengthen community resilience, including: mechanisms to build social movements, particularly those representing marginalized populations, to advocate for their policy priorities; tactics to support supply side (parties, legislatures, and government bodies) to receive, create platforms for, and incorporate such grassroots input; and tools to build resilient and durable communities (centers, events, charities, networks, girl scouts). Finally, more can be done to develop more robust oversight mechanisms and processes to protect overstepping exposed by the virus, including pre-emptive and ex-post oversight (legislature, judiciary, political minority), tools that address marginalized communities (thematic inquiries and impact assessments), and successful citizen participation in oversight.

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